17 February 1997

HM Coroner for Hereford and Worcester, Victor Round.

Sitting at Coventry Magistrates’ Court, Little Park Street, Coventry.

Commences Tuesday 18 February 1997 10am

John Leo O’Reilly was a 54-year old Irish man who died on 17 July 1994 following a period in the custody of the West Midlands Police. He was married with five children.

Mr O’Reilly fell on the evening of 2 July 1994 and suffered a fractured skull. He was assessed as being drunk and incapable and taken into police custody at Little Park Police Station in Coventry where he remained for some 13.5 hours before being transferred to hospital.

His condition in the police cell was appalling. The ambulance staff found him to be semi-dressed, shivering and lying in a pool of his own urine and vomit. By the time he was treated in hospital he was in too poor a neurological state to be saved.

The police evidence was that Mr O’Reilly was conscious and able to communicate with them at key stages throughout his detention. The family believe that Mr O’Reilly lapsed into unconsciousness shortly after his arrest and they want to know what happened whilst he was in custody which allowed his condition to further deteriorate and so that his chances of survival were dramatically reduced.

The first inquest returned a verdict of accidental death on 12 October 1994. Mr O’Reilly’s family were so dissatisfied with the first inquest, as it had left so many questions unanswered, that they sought legal advice and in March 1996 the Divisional Court ruled that a fresh inquest should take place before a different coroner.

But the family will still be disadvantaged at the second inquest. Both the Chief Constable and the lawyers representing individual officers have had full access to all relevant documents. Such access has been denied the family. Despite the fact that unlimited public funds are available for the Police to have a team of lawyers to represent them, that the Medical Defence Union will fund the representation of the police doctors and Police Federation funds enable individual police officers to be represented, disgracefully there is no legal aid for families to be represented. The family will be represented for free by eminent QC Edward Fitzgerald.

The death of Mr O’Reilly raises serious questions about the medical care of detainees in police custody. In INQUEST’s 16 year experience of monitoring deaths in custody it is clear that people arrested for alleged drunkenness are often suffering from a pre-existing injury or medical condition the symptoms of which are mistaken for drunkenness by non-medically trained police officers with tragic consequences. The largest group of people who die in police custody are those arrested for alleged drunkenness offences.

INQUEST has had occasion to raise this disturbing issue on many occasions over the years, concern which has been expressed by a number of other organisations including the British Medical Association and Association of Police Surgeons. In a joint publication in 1994 they recommended that the care of detainees with alcohol problems should not be managed in police stations describing them as `potentially dangerous places’ and that medical treatment was often `appalling or non-existent’.